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GUEST BLOG: "Attaching Stories to Choral Texts," by Amanda Bumgarner

ATTACHING STORIES TO CHORAL TEXTS by Amanda Bumgarner
 
       The May 2014 issue of the Choral Journal features a cover article written by Philip Silvey titled “Fashioning Compelling Stories” in which Silvey argues for the importance of the role of stories in a choral singer’s experience—what he calls “text narrative exploration.”
       Undoubtedly, there is a unique power in the creating or telling of a story, but the question for choral educators remains: How should that power be applied to music? Some might even ask: Should that power be applied to music?
       Many choral purists take issue with the idea that a work of art cannot be appreciated simply for what it is without attaching a story to it. Others, like Silvey, maintain that creating a story to supplement a choral text adds depth and ultimately leads to a more enriching experience for the conductor, singers, and audience members. Silvey says, “By fashioning their own compelling narratives, singers create a context for what is being said, shed light on possible motivations, and enable words to make expressive sense.”
       Then there is this sentiment from English musician John McLaughlin: “The moment you start to talk about playing music, you destroy music. It cannot be talked about. It can only be played, enjoyed, and listened to.”
       Which side do you fall on? Do you think fashioning stories for choral texts allows for greater expression? Or do you take artistic issue with the notion that a text cannot stand alone?
       Feel free to share your thoughts here on ChoralNet or even send in a “Letter to the Editor” for consideration for publication in an upcoming issue of Choral Journal. I would love to hear from you!  Better still perhaps YOU should write an article or column in the Choral Journal.  You can contact me at abumgarner@acda.org.
on April 1, 2014 7:03am
Amanda, Good Morning,
 
I wish you could have included a demonstrative story, an example from Philip Silvey. Comes to mind quickly that most Country (Hill Billy) songs are a story of Love - rebuffed, lost, envied, broken, denied, deceived, stolen and on.
 
You are bringing up a pet narrative of mine. I say, if the performers will carefully consider the Who, What, Why, When, Where of a song (not excluding Latin Liturgical texts) the mind will find ideas to communicate and will therfore find the root reason for the voice to phonate normally and not by command, artificially.
 
I admire if a person really understands the text as it is; that is, takes the trouble to analyse ad nauseum. 
 
No time now. Later some might be interested in a demo via "Jeanie with the light brown hair."
 
Keep this going!!
 
Ed Palmer
 
 
Applauded by an audience of 1
on April 1, 2014 9:07am
Hi Amanda,
 
The process of creating a story is at the core of my book, Choral Charisma: Singing with Expression (cited by Silvey). As a clinician/presenter, I've seen the power of story over and over again: when working with story, excellent but not particularly expressive choirs have transformed themselves into compelling and engaging groups in about an hour. While it's compelling by itself, I do find that singers do much better with the story concept when it's combined with some basic Method acting instruction and other related concepts.
 
For much more, see my website. For an example of how to use story with "My Wild Irish Rose," see this page.
 
All my best,
 
Tom
 
Applauded by an audience of 1
on April 2, 2014 9:30am
Tom,
When I first began reading your Choral Charisma webpage, I was applauding every prargraph, and wondering how I could shout a cyber-"Amen!" .  (While I have a Vocal-Choral degree, and much experience with that, I also took some acting, some of which was Stanislavsky-based, also Wesley Balk.   Those experiences, along with the good theatre and opera directors I've worked with, have led me to many of your same thoughts.  )   I have often asked my singers [both in the choral rehearsal and the private voice studio] these 'Who-are-you-how-do-you-feel-think?" questions.  My private students each sang, played piano or guitar on recital this past weekend, and what grew from within them was palpaple.  The audience responded accordingly.  (Even my dear math-science-minded/that-thing-has-words?! husband was moved.)
It is wonderful that you have shared this with us, and I hope many directors/teachers will use it with their singers.   What a joyful thing!
 
Then I read your example [with barbershop ] and I am so sorry to have to tell you that my joy plummeted to extreme dissapointment.
I am sorry to have to express this to someone I've never actually met; that is not my habit or wish.
 
However, I must ask you:  Why have you chosen this song ("My Wild Irish Rose") as an example?  Have you ever played a [serious] woman character?   How do you think she would feel about the song, "My Wild Irish Rose"?   This "bloom I will take" ....  is kind of like the expression, "they fell in love"...only worse, I think.  A famous writer-professor asks, "Why 'fell'?  Does it make us lower?  Injure us?  Make us less-than?  Why not 'rise to love', 'ascend to love', 'grow into love'...?"
If we love someone, why are we wanting to take something from her (or him)? [I do understand the meaning, but I still feel the imagery is weird and inappropriate.   Not immoral, just goofed-up/ineffective.]  Do we wish to make the one we love look older and tired?  Would we not want to 'share' the bloom, [true love shold make both feel rosy, n'est-ce pas?]  I won't be too graphic - this is an international website - but I think even a man can understand the need to be respected, even in a consumated relationship, and this poetry has always sounded, to me, the opposite of that.  In this day and age, with hundreds of cases in each city of childhood trafficking, why would we want to even risk motivating such attitudes artistically?
Please consider putting a different example, with a different song that more can relate to, on your website.  And please do not use anything that could serve to help motivate seriously inappropriate feelings/thoughts-to-actions.  I thank you sincerely, and I'm sure I speak in behalf of many others.  www.streetGrace.org
Still, I applaud and appreciate your writings and sharings about authentic expression.  Your sharings are valuable and have been/will continue to be passed around widely.  We both know that this even more strongly behooves us to choose songs that have good reasons to stay in the memory and heart, and have positive effects.
Thanks again, and I am sorry that your example was one that I simply, as a woman, a wife, a mother, a teacher, but most of all as a vocal/choral-theatre professional, felt compelled to speak about.
With sincere best wishes,
-Lucy
on April 2, 2014 10:04am
Hi Lucy,
 
Thanks so much for your thoughts. I'm glad you resonated with the core principles; I'm also glad that you shared your response to "My Wild Irish Rose"! RE that example, I actually used it when I wrote a guest blog for a barbershop-based website (I chose the song based on its popularity in barbershop circles). 
 
I'll seriously consider replacing "My Wild Irish Rose," based on your response.
 
If you're interested, I discuss creating stories with "Ave Maria" and "This Little Light of Mine" on my Director's Face page.
 
Thanks again.
 
All my best,
 
Tom
on April 2, 2014 10:13am
Also. Lucy. wouldn't it be nice to hear something Tom conducted - maybe a before and after example?
 
After all, ideas can become lost in an abundance of words!
 
Ed Palmer
on April 2, 2014 12:39pm
Yes.  I was also reading Tom's "Safety First" games.  I applaud the concept, and the preparatory work done on it.   It was a little tricky to picture some of the procedures.
I do imagine that they would be fun and effective!  I have seen the "Trust Circle" and that it is quite effective.
on April 2, 2014 12:47pm
Hey Edward,
 
Oh, how I wish I could conduct! I'm speaking as a clinician who works with choirs, but I don't actually conduct them. 
 
The deal with using story (and other associated processes) with choirs is that the responsibitlity for expression is on the singers, not the conductor. So, after the singers incorporate the story elements, it really doesn't matter if the conductor is expressive or not; the singers are trying to affect the conductor (in the guise of the person to whom they are singing), not the other way around.
 
For testimonials to the power of using story, please check out that webpage I mentioned above.
 
All my best,
 
Tom
on April 2, 2014 10:11am
Amanda,
Great question.   First, are we talking about this being for our in-rehearsal singers, or audience, or both?  I'll use the word "audience" in the general sense ; "listeners"  (in rehearsal or performance.)
I would say that it depends on several things:
1. Can you determine, to an extent, the musicology awareness of you audience?  If you're doing an all-Mozart program, and they know a good bit about "Wolfie", then one or two specific sentences about your piece...or saying nothing ...might be fine; even preferable.
2. Do you, or someone present, have a related story that is so compelling that it is likely to elicit/focus catharsis from everyone - for example, a choral arrangement of "There is a Castle on a Cloud" where you have a child who was [in real-life] adopted from homelessness and is singing in your chorus?
3. If there are some experienced actors in the audience, like Tom Carter who has also posted here, most of them will do this mentally, already.  Or you could briefly describe this concept and suggest that they try it.  This might help what is simply beautiful sound, to infuse them personally.
4. Does the song have so many strong possibilities for interpretation that it might not seem right to influence any individual's path?
 
I would caution us [including myself] not to overdo.  Most audiences and choir members want music, not a classroom lecture.  "Tell me, I forget. Show me; I remember. Involve me, I understand."
However, as I was preparing my Master's Recital, my Mom related that she appreciated short verbal introducitons she had recently heard, and hoped I would consider that.
 
There were 20 students in last Sunday's recital.  They performed about 27 different songs, as solos.   Most of them had words, like "Oh, Danny boy.."  , and it was fine to let the interpretations "float in" to audience members.    But I did have the discussion (see my post to Tom, below) during previous lessons, to be sure they knew the background, potential feelings, about what they were playing/singing.
Songs with specific background, such as an aria from "Marriage of Figaro", "Bublitchki", and "I Won't Mind" from The Other Franklin, are examples of songs arising out of such specific situations as to benefit from explanation.
When a student wishes to change a dymanic or tempo marking, I generally say, "That's fine, just tell me why; what is going on with this  person, this wind, this elephant....that makes you envison that?""   Most of them have very specific and plausible answers, which makes it fun for me.   A lot of the "Fun" for us, singers, and audience, is the journey of thought and imagination we go through.  We can go through it whether we, like Hansel and Gretl, have the breadcrumbs with us, or are finding our own way.
 
on April 2, 2014 12:36pm
Hi Lucy,
 
I just changed my website, replacing "My Wild Irish Rose" with "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean."
 
Thanks again!
 
Tom